Greenwich teacher tells tales of his new YA novel
GREENWICH — Four years ago, Greenwich High School history teacher Michael Belanger heard a voice in his head: the stubborn voice of Ray Green, the teenage narrator of Belanger’s new book, “The History of Jane Doe.”
“I don’t have cancer and both of my parents are both alive,” the wry, sarcastic and angsty Ray writes in the opening sentence. “I just thought I’d get that out of the way so you’re not disappointed.”
Belanger also heard the voices of Jane Doe and Simon, the two other main characters in his book, which came out June 5. He told an intimate gathering of 20 at the Greenwich Library on Tuesday night how these characters not only drove the narrative, but also the themes of teenage depression and suicide addressed in the book.
He also explained his writing and revision process. Even after four years of work-shopping small excerpts, this line, and the rest of the paragraph, never changed, Belanger said.
No, Ray continues, he doesn’t have powers, he’s not a vampire and he’s not taking down a dystopian government — references to Harry Potter, “Twilight” and the Hunger Games trilogy, and the myriad spinoffs.
Belanger, however, was taking down the tropes of the young adult genre.
“It was a risky decision to take down the genre,” he said. “As a writer, risks usually pay off. Sometimes, they’re abysmal failures and you’ll forever keep that secret on your hard drive.”
His YA influences include Jennifer Niven’s “All the Bright Places” and John Greene, most famous for writing “The Fault in Our Stars.”
Belanger, a Stamford resident, doesn’t storyboard. Instead, he writes the lives of his characters and sees where it takes him. In this book, his character Jane took him to the dark and difficult place of teenage depression.
But he balances out the depression with humor. He’s always “upping the ridiculous,” and said he isn’t afraid of the outrageous, lessons he learned from his favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut.
Humor comes through in the book’s setting of Burgerville, which is loosely based on New Canaan, where he grew up.
On Tuesday, Belanger read uproarious passages about the town’s unfortunate ties to the meat industry and how it affects the residents, eliciting bouts of laughter from the audience.
The town myths occupy a place of importance for Belanger. Whenever he was stuck, he would write another wacky story about green cows or strange architecture. Through retelling them, Ray, a history buff like the author, could be himself and understand Jane.
He also took questions from the crowd, telling them about the risks he took and the lessons his books’ characters taught him.
One woman asked how he chose names. Jane Doe was originally a placeholder,Belanger said, until he knew enough to rename her. Instead, the name became a part of the novel, a way of highlighting the anonymous victims of depression.
Another man asked about the kinds of revisions Belanger made. The author said he didn’t touch core elements and certain scenes, but some little changes had big consequences for character development.
Jane Doe, for example, sported a punk T-shirt and black nail polish in her first appearance in an initial draft. After he finished writing, however, Belanger realized that the Jane he created would have instead worn a folk band shirt and a rainbow of nail colors, eccentric traits that revealed her character rather than leaving her flat.
Kira Popa, a sophomore at Greenwich High who read the book cover to cover right after it came out, said she appreciated that change. She and her mother, Laura, who read the book, too, attended the talk.
“She went from an emo stereotype to her own person,” Kira said of Jane Doe.
Laura remembers when Kira, who admitted she doesn’t read a lot, came into the kitchen, crying and holding the book after finishing it.
“It’s pretty relatable,” Kira said. The friendship that developed between Ray and Jane in biology class will stick with her, she said.
The talk gave Laura the chance to look for bits of Belanger in his book. She said she likes that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, and she’s looking forward to what else he publishes.
That day may come soon. Once he sent the manuscript of “Jane Doe” to his editor, Belanger wrote another book in the three months before she sent her edits, “just to prove I could do it again.” The new book mixes Zen Buddhism and punk music, he revealed.
Former classmates and rising college sophomores Adrianna Knight, Kendall Gregory, Olivia Luntz and Avrey Carifa came to support Belanger, a former teacher and adviser for the high school’s literary publication, “Greenwitch.”
They remember the slew of rejection letters he received before getting an agent their senior year.
“We all freaked out,” Luntz said, adding, as a joke: “This is basically my book. I can’t believe I’m not in the dedication.”
Knight, who read the dedication, defended Belanger, saying his “thank you” to their literary magazine is a shout-out “by proxy.”
When Carifa got the book, she immediately sent Snapchats to all her friends, excited to share that her former teacher is the author.
Belanger also shared about his teaching experiences permeating the book, whether in the awkward interaction between Jane and her new biology teacher, or in his capacity to portray teen depression, rooted in a few students who showed him how hard it is being a teenager.
“I was surprised to see how much it was about teaching,” Luntz said. “Apparently, we had an impact.”